All it took to spark one of the most progressive climate policies in the entire country was a few hundred feet of proposed pipe meant to stretch from the banks of the Columbia River to a floating dock near Portland, Oregon.
Through that short stretch of pipe, Pembina Pipeline Corporation — a Canadian energy company with considerable assets in the carbon-intensive tar sands — planned to pump enough propane to fill between 36,000 and 72,000 barrels a day onto floating storage tanks before transferring those tanks to ships bound for markets overseas. The pipe was just a small detail in a huge plan, one that involved bringing mile-long trains loaded with propane into a $500-million dollar terminal that would be constructed at the Port of Portland.
Because the project was sited for the port, Pembina needed only to obtain approval from the port authority, a governor-appointed body, to begin construction. For months, approval seemed a near certainty: When the company first proposed the project, in September of 2014, then-Mayor Charlie Hales lauded the terminal as “great news,” extolling both the jobs and tax revenues that the multi-million dollar investment would create. Bill Wyatt, Port of Portland’s executive director, described the proposal as “transformative.”
But Pembina and the port soon ran into unexpected trouble. The pipeline, which was needed to transport propane from the terminal to the floating tanks, would have to run through an environmentally sensitive area restricted under the city’s land use laws. To build the terminal, Pembina would have to convince regulators to change the city’s zoning codes.
The city would eventually change its zoning laws, though not exactly in the way Pembina had in mind. The proposal for a major fossil fuel project in the famously green city galvanized the Portland community, inspiring a coalition of environmental, neighborhood, and public health groups to fight the terminal’s construction. As a unified alliance, the groups opposed the terminal from multiple fronts, arguing that it would endanger public health, undermine the city’s renewable energy goals, and jeopardize the global climate.
After months of allied opposition, Pembina eventually pulled its proposal for the terminal — but rather than claim victory, the coalition of groups that fought so hard against the project decided to craft an ordinance that would make it all but impossible for a project like the Pembina terminal to be proposed in Portland again.
In December of 2016, the coalition got their wish, as the Portland City Council unanimously voted to adopt zoning codes that prohibited the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure within city limits — the first attempt by any American city to pass a comprehensive ban on all fossil fuel infrastructure by changing a city’s land use laws.
The ban sparked a challenge from the fossil fuel industry, supported by the Portland Business Alliance and local manufacturers, that lead to the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals overturning the ordinance. The city of Portland, as well as environmental groups, are appealing the decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals, and the ban’s supporters are hopeful it will be reinstated after the court’s review.
Even as legal challenges complicate Portland’s bold step, several other communities are already pursuing similar changes to their land use laws — forward-looking actions that would solidify the wall of fossil fuel resistance that has been building throughout the region for years. And as the Trump administration continues to undermine climate action at a federal level — and looks to boost fossil fuel production and export throughout the country — communities in the Pacific Northwest are hoping to prove that even hyperlocal policies can have an outsized impact on national climate action.
The Pembina proposal, though certainly the breaking point for Portland, was hardly an unprecedented incursion by a fossil fuel company into the environmentally-conscious Pacific Northwest. Starting in the mid-2000s, as demand for coal and oil began slumping domestically, driven largely by the fracking boom in North Dakota, fossil fuel companies began eying the ports of western coastal cities as potential sites for export terminals.
The ports of the Pacific Northwest were especially desirable. Most were located along existing rail routes that could bring oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming or Montana, or diluted bitumen from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to ports that could then ship those fuels overseas to Asian markets. And with coal consumption in particular facing terminal decline in the United States, fossil fuel companies viewed markets in Asia — particularly South Korea and China — with a ravenous appetite.
Starting in 2012, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia collectively saw 26 different proposals for massive fossil fuel infrastructure: four new coal terminals, three expansions of existing terminals, two new oil pipelines, eleven oil-by-rail facilities, and six new natural gas pipelines. And those projects, collectively, represented a significant contribution to climate change. According to the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, the proposals could account for an added 822 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide annually. (For comparison, the Keystone XL pipeline, which former NASA-scientist-turned-climate-activist James Hansen said would be “game over for the climate,” would produce an estimated 149 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.)
“The Pacific Northwest is going to have acute pressure to become an energy hub,” Charles Ebinger, an energy security expert at the Brookings Institution, told National Geographic in 2014. “It is just a matter of how many of those projects both in the U.S. and Canada the environmental community lets get built.”
In most communities, the proposals instantly sparked intense debate, and pitted industry and business interests against environmental, community, and public health groups. Proponents of the projects touted the millions of dollars in investment and potential for permanent job creation; opponents argued that the projects were too risky, both for local environmental health and the climate at large.
“This region has historically identified so much with the environmental movement,” Eric de Place, policy director of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, told ThinkProgress. “To find itself right in the crosshairs of the fossil fuel industry, it has really provoked almost an existential identity crisis.”
Little by little, opponents of the projects began notching victories against fossil fuel companies. Some were the result of market changes: persistently low coal prices coupled with slumping overseas demand felled several proposed coal terminals in British Columbia, while the inability to show federal regulators that there was a market for liquefied natural gas led the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to deny a natural gas terminal in coastal Oregon. Other victories were a result of community opposition, successful legal challenges, or, in a combination of both, outright rejection by local governing bodies.
In Portland, the Pembina proposal was defeated by a few hundred feet of pipeline, which volleyed the project into the public regulatory process and gave opponents time to coalesce a convincing opposition movement.
“As a community, we turned those hearings — that were really supposed to be about a few hundred feet of pipe — into a referendum on the entire terminal and the project and the role of bridge fuels and climate,” Micah Meskel, field coordinator for the Audubon Society of Portland, said.
Taken together, the pockets of resistance worked to basically expel fossil fuel proposals from the Pacific Northwest. Environmental activists started referring to the burgeoning resistance movement as the Thin Green Line, a kind of invisible wall built by individual communities up and down the West Coast.
“Everybody outside the Northwest thinks that’s where energy projects go to die,” Lou Soumas, CEO of Riverside Refining, a Houston-based energy startup, told the Longview Daily News in 2015.
But, for all the success of the Thin Green Line, victories were still just isolated incidents. Denial one year did not mean that a similar project, if sited differently or proposed during a market boom, wouldn’t sail through the approval process. The Thin Green Line was strong, to be sure, but it was also lucky.
The Portland coalition was also lucky, at least when it came to the Pembina propane terminal proposal. They were lucky that the project included that hundred feet of pipe, and lucky that it happened to cross an environmentally sensitive area that would have required a change to the city’s zoning code. Without that bit of luck, it’s entirely possible that the Pembina proposal would have easily made it through the approval process, bolstered by effusive support from the port and city hall.
To defeat the project, a coalition of environmental groups — like 350 PDX, Columbia Riverkeeper, Portland Audubon — as well as social justice, religious, and community groups, flooded hearings on the proposal with hundreds of protesters. At the same time, several had also begun engaging with bureaucrats in city hall to help update the city’s Climate Action Plan.
In May of 2015, then-Mayor Hales — responding to the outpouring of public resistance — officially announced his opposition to the project, leaving the terminal effectively dead in the water. It was a stunning reversal that surprised even those who had spent months working on the issue, as well as proof of the immense power that the community held over city leadership.
“At some point, those of us in power have to listen to those who put us there,” Hales told the Oregonian after he announced his new position.
But the near brush with a massive fossil fuel project, and the handful of other fossil fuel resistance efforts across the region, led local organizers to a loftier goal: What if they could work with the city to keep projects like the Pembina terminal from being considered in the first place?
“We were sick of playing whack-a-mole,” Mia Reback, campaign coordinator for 350 PDX, said. “We thought that there has to be a way to say no, comprehensively, to all fossil fuels so we can move forward with the rest of the climate agenda, which is transformation.”
For a city, comprehensively saying no to fossil fuels is not a simple task. To start, Portland has not yet fully separated fossil fuels from its energy system — people still drive gas-powered cars, airplanes filled with fuel still come and go from Portland International Airport. And Portland still serves as the primary storage site for the vast majority of Oregon’s fossil fuels; the 11 fuel terminals currently located in Portland’s Northwest Industrial District store what amounts to 90 percent of the state’s fossil fuels.
Moreover, federal law prevents states or cities from passing any laws that control interstate commerce, since only Congress has the authority to regulate commerce between states.
But cities do have control over their zoning codes and land use laws, which gave fossil fuel opponents a way to limit the kinds of structures that could be built within Portland city limits.
In November of 2015, just a few weeks before leaders from around the world met in Paris to hash out the details of the Paris climate agreement, Portland’s local leaders met to hash out the details of a smaller bit of climate policy. In a unanimous vote, the city council adopted a resolution, put forward by the same coalition that fought the Pembina terminal, opposing the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure throughout Portland or its waterways — the first resolution of its kind in the country.
It was a first step towards doing something that Portland’s climate activists — backed by born-again climate champion Hales — had long advocated: shift climate strategy from a defensive operation, content with fighting proposals as they appeared, to an offensive operation, meant to create a system that prohibited those proposals in the first place.
But banning fossil fuel infrastructure, even in an environmentally friendly place like Portland, meant wading through the minutia of the bureaucratic process. It’s one thing to pass a resolution saying the city opposes fossil fuel infrastructure — but implementing a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure, while balancing the very real energy needs of the Pacific Northwest’s second-largest city, all while remaining within the confines of what a city is legally allowed to do, is another story.
“As with any big idea, when you actually go to figure out how you do it, the devil is in the details,” Tom Armstrong, supervising planner with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said. “You take this great concept — ‘We don’t want this’ — and how do you legally define that?”
Perhaps the most complicated issue was defining exactly what counts as fossil fuel infrastructure. In Portland, 90 percent of the state’s fuel supply is stored in 11 terminals located along the Columbia River. A more pressing concern than the impact of future fossil fuel infrastructure was the fact that those existing facilities are all located on what is known as a soil liquefaction zone — an area with soil that, in the event of an earthquake, would essentially turn to liquid. What would an updated zoning code mean for those facilities? Would they be allowed to expand? Would they be allowed to expand if it also meant making upgrades to help their facilities to better withstand potential earthquakes? Would the new zoning code make an exception for storage facilities for airplane fuel, a necessity for Portland’s airport?
Fossil fuel companies and business interests were hesitant to support any zoning code that constrained their ability to expand, while environmental activists decried any zoning code that gave fossil fuel companies leeway to bring more natural gas, oil, or coal into the city. They cited fossil fuel disasters like the oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Canada that killed 47, or the oil train derailment in Mosier, Oregon, a little more than 60 miles from Portland, as proof that the projects were simply too dangerous for public and environmental health.
Fossil fuel infrastructure, they argued, placed communities near the terminals — as well as along the transportation lines — at risk. And beyond Portland, moving fossil fuels through the city and onto markets elsewhere would only hasten the climate crisis, creating consequences that would be felt both locally and around the world.
In the end, environmentalists emerged from the negotiations with most — though not all — of their demands met. The new zoning code, which was adopted by a unanimous vote of the Portland City Council in December of 2016 — just over a year after the resolution calling for an end to fossil fuel expansion — created a new class of regulated land use for bulk fossil fuel terminals, which included anything with a storage capacity in excess of 2 million gallons. The new code permitted the existing fossil fuel storage facilities to continue operating, but prohibited them from expanding, and did not require existing storage facilities to make any upgrades to make them more resilient in the event of an earthquake.
Even for those involved with the process, the fact that the city was able to move from resolution to policy in a little more than a year was surprising, spurred largely by a commitment from Mayor Hales to finish the process before leaving office in January. But for Hales, the victory was about more than just one city. In touting the accomplishment, the mayor — by then a climate champion who had spoken about the role of the city in tackling climate change at the Paris climate conference in 2015 — extolled Portland’s decision as the first step towards creating a unified front of resistance that could permanently alter the Pacific Northwest’s reliance on fossil fuels.
“This is the first stone in a green wall of resistance against fossil fuel facilities on the West Coast,” Hales said.
A little less than a year after the city council passed the zoning code, Portland’s fossil fuel infrastructure ban faces an uncertain future. Almost immediately after the update became law, a coalition of business interests and fossil fuel groups appealed the change to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, the administrative body in charge of reviewing land use disputes within the state. The city, the challengers argued, had gravely overstepped their authority, state law, and the Constitution, by using local laws to stifle the flow of interstate commerce.
In late July, the appeals board sided with the challengers, arguing that the infrastructure ban violated the Interstate Commerce Clause and could not be implemented.
Environmental groups and the city were quick to criticize the decision, with Portland’s new mayor, Ted Wheeler, promising to defend the city’s commitment to limiting fossil fuel infrastructure. A few weeks after the decision, the city council unanimously voted to appeal the decision to a higher court. The case is now before the Oregon Court of Appeals.
“Portland, to their credit, took up a policy that is very significant, and we think it deserves a significant defense,” Dan Serres, conservation director with Columbia Riverkeeper, said. “We’re going to continue to work with the city to reinstate a policy that accomplishes these goals.”
Still, the legal challenges to Portland’s policy hasn’t derailed activists’ dream of a green wall of opposition throughout the Pacific Northwest. Instead, with the Trump administration looking to expand the United States’ production of coal, oil, and gas — putting once-dead infrastructure projects on a path to revival — a handful of cities are using Portland’s model to fight back against fossil fuels.
Even before Portland’s fossil fuel infrastructure ban passed the city council, the small timber towns of Hoquiam and Aberdeen — located on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula — passed their own bans on certain types of fossil fuel storage within city limits. For Hoquiam, it was a ban on bulk oil storage, catalyzed by proposals for several oil terminals and the Nestucca oil spill, one of the largest spills in the state’s history. For Aberdeen, it was a ban on all bulk crude oil storage and handling facilities, extending a temporary moratorium that had been passed a year earlier.
“These are towns that do not think of themselves as the typical Seattle or Portland-type environmentalist,” Sightline’s de Place said. President Trump carried Grays Harbor, the county in which both towns are located, by seven points in November.
Following Portland’s lead, major port cities also considered changing land use laws in response to new fossil fuel terminal proposals. In Vancouver, Washington — directly across the state line from Portland — the city council amended the zoning code to prohibit new crude oil storage facilities and limit the expansion of existing facilities. And while the update does not cover the Tesoro Vancouver Energy project — the largest proposed oil-by-rail terminal in North America — the city council unanimously approved the change, arguing that it would protect local health and safety from potentially explosive oil-by-rail accidents.
Further north, in Whatcom County, climate and environmental activists adopted a similar strategy to ensure their recent success in fighting off major fossil fuel projects would not be threatened in the future. Whatcom County was once the site of the largest coal export terminal proposal on the West Coast, but after that proposal was defeated in 2016 — shot down by the Army Corps of Engineers on the basis that it would have violated tribal fishing rights of the Lummi Nation — local environmental groups took the effort a step further. In order to prevent other fossil fuel companies from even having the chance to propose a similar project within county limits, the county passed a temporary moratorium on proposals to ship unrefined fossil fuels while the county considered potential updates to the comprehensive plan.
“The goal is the same, which is the move away from the kind of fossil fuel export fights that have been the norm in the Pacific Northwest for the last five or six years, where we are in response mode,” Alex Ramel, extreme oil field director at Stand International, said of the similarities between Whatcom and Portland’s efforts to ban fossil fuel infrastructure. “That basic strategy is the same, and I hope to see it continued up and down the coast.”
In Tacoma, Washington, organizers are also looking to amend local land use laws to make it more difficult for the port to become a target for fossil fuel projects. Like in Portland, the idea was first sparked by a proposed methanol refinery, which would have used shipped the fossil fuel to China for use in the manufacturing of plastics. Eventually, in response to local opposition, the financial backers pulled out of the project, but organizers knew similar proposals were sure to follow; according to the Sightline Institute’s June 2017 report, “Northwest Targets,” Tacoma is the second-most at-risk place in the Pacific Northwest when it comes to potential major fossil fuel infrastructure proposals.
“A ton of people in the community are really concerned about a big fossil fuel export project,” Melissa Malott, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay, said. “We are talking about taking action at the local level, because we know that Trump is trying to speed up the extraction of oil products.”
Like in Whatcom County, Tacoma organizers are trying to convince the port to pass a resolution disapproving fossil fuel export proposals while leaders weigh how to change its subarea plan, which would dictate land use laws for the port of Tacoma and the surrounding area. And while that plan will take years to craft, organizers like Malott are already beginning to shore up support from nontraditional allies, like longshoreman, who depend on the health of the port for their livelihood.
“It’s not just about climate change, it’s not just about environmental impacts,” Malott said. “It’s about other impacts on the community.”
But while land use changes from Vancouver to Tacoma all came about in response to very real proposals for massive fossil fuel infrastructure projects, not every Pacific Northwest city considering similar actions is doing so in response to a specific project. Some places, like Seattle, have taken up the fight as a means of preventing fossil fuel infrastructure from even being proposed.
“We don’t want to have to wait for a Pembina [type proposal] to move on this,” Jess Wallach, with 350 Seattle, said. “We have the community power, as well as justification, to stand for this.”
Following the Trump administration’s June announcement that it would be withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, Seattle — like many cities around the country — passed a local resolution reaffirming its commitment to the climate goals encapsulated in the agreement. But Seattle went further, calling for the city to take steps to ban any new kind of fossil fuel export infrastructure within city limits. That resolution, according to Wallach, is still largely symbolic, but it already has kicked off preliminary planning meetings between a similar coalition of groups — environmental, public health, community, and labor — that helped push the Portland resolution from symbolism to policy.
While each of these cities have certainly been inspired by the tactics employed in Portland, each city’s approach also reflects the unique economic and political environment of each place. In Whatcom county, for instance, which already has two fossil fuel refineries, organizers have had to carefully tread the line between prohibiting the export of certain fossil fuel products while still allowing the county to bring in unrefined products for refining. And in Tacoma or Seattle — where the port economy is growing much more quickly than in Portland — organizers might feel more economic pressure pushing back against potential proposals, both from the port and potential fossil fuel proposals.
“This is a really organic, dynamic approach to how we fight big fossil fuel projects in the Northwest,” 350’s Wallach said. “Lots of communities are taking on this fight in ways that are really unique and responsive to their place.”
And while the disparate economic and political environments of Pacific Northwest cities might make this approach seem like an ad-hoc patchwork of primarily local laws, experts like de Place argue that Northwest cities hold a tremendous amount of power when it comes to stopping fossil fuel expansion in its tracks. There simply aren’t an infinite number of places where large scale fossil fuel infrastructure projects can be built — and by slowly but surely taking options off the table, local communities can exert an outsized influence on the future of energy both in this country and around the world.
“There is really a finite number of places that can host a fossil fuel project,” de Place said. “It’s totally possible to lock them out with a half dozen reforms like this. That’s a game-changer, definitely for North American energy economics and maybe for global economics.”